Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)

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Summary of Chapter 5

The main aim of chapter 5 of Reforming Apologetics is to criticize “historic worldview theory” (HWT) and the significant role it has played (according to the author) in the development of Van Tilian apologetics. The adoption of HWT is an obstacle to using “the book of nature” in apologetics, and for that very reason it needs to be challenged.

As Dr. Fesko defines it, HWT is

a very distinct idea that begins with nineteenth-century German idealism and includes the following characteristics: (1) the rejection of a common doctrine of humanity, (2) a single principle from which one deduces a worldview, (3) an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality, and (4) the incommensurability of competing worldviews. These aspects of HWT create an inhospitable environment for the historic Reformed appeal to the book of nature. The increased use of HWT is inversely proportional to the decreased use of the book of nature. (p. 98)

Fesko identifies several specific problems with HWT. First, it is “contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity”; in other words, it rejects the biblical teaching that all people share common notions in virtue of bearing the image of God. Second, HWT claims that “a worldview must present an exhaustive explanation of the world,” but the Bible doesn’t do that. According to the Reformed faith, Scripture “does not address all things” but “gives only principles for life in general” (p. 98). In the hands of Van Tilian apologists, HWT implies that the Bible “exhaustively explains all reality” and “must be the only foundation for all knowledge” (p. 99).

Dr. Fesko proposes to make his case by (1) reviewing the historical origins of HWT, (2) explaining how Van Til’s employment of HWT led to his rejection of common notions, (3) surveying the impact of Van Til’s use of HWT on the Reformed community, (4) making “a brief scriptural case for common notions,” and (5) refuting the claim that the Bible “offers an exhaustive view of the world” (p. 99).

Origins of Historic Worldview Theory

This introductory section offers a brief history of HWT. The concept of worldview (Weltanschauung) originated with Kant, but was picked up and deployed by others including Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wilhelm Dilthey. Fesko focuses most attention on Dilthey because he has been regarded as “the father of HWT” and was the first to offer a systematic treatment.

As Dilthey and his colleagues propounded the worldview concept in Germany, “the idea traveled throughout Europe and landed in the lap of one United Presbyterian theologian,” namely, James Orr.

Like Kant and Dilthey, Orr believed that a worldview offered a comprehensive view of reality. And like Dilthey, he maintained that a worldview sought to answer life’s biggest questions: What principles should guide one’s life? What is the goal of one’s existence? What rational justification does one offer for one’s beliefs? (p. 103)

Orr didn’t embrace HWT wholesale, but he did adopt some of its problematic tenets:

Orr embraced the idea that a worldview provided an exhaustive answer to life’s key questions, but he disagreed regarding the source of the knowledge. Dilthey locates the origin of knowledge in man, whereas Orr places it in revelation. (p. 103)

In addition, Orr “embraced the HWT tenet of the incommensurability of worldviews” and held that the Christian worldview is explained by “one single principle,” specifically, Christology (p. 104). Thus, in Orr’s view, Christ must be “the all-controlling doctrine” at the center of the Christian worldview (p. 105).

Kuyper on Worldview

The trail of HWT in Christian thought continues by way of Abraham Kuyper’s famous 1898 Stone Lectures, which were indebted to Orr’s The Christian View of God and the World. Following Orr, Kuyper believed that

the Christian worldview offers an exhaustive explanation of the world, stands in antithesis to other worldviews, and is a life-system that finds its source in Christianity. (p. 105)

Even so, there are some notable differences between Orr and Kuyper. For example, Kuyper “did not always posit a strict antithesis between the Christian and non-Christian worldviews” (p. 106). In other words, he rejected the incommensurability thesis. Even more significantly, Fesko suggests, Kuyper neglected to disclose the (dubious) historical origins of his worldview concept.

Van Til on Worldview

Christ as the Starting Point for Knowledge

Van Til “embraced Kuyper’s overall worldview program” but introduced some modifications of his own. Although he acknowledged common grace, Van Til “more forcefully stressed the principle of antithesis,” going so far as to criticize Kuyper and Herman Bavinck for not being fully consistent with this principle and for introducing non-Christian elements into their epistemologies.

In Van Til’s opinion, all synthesis thinking must be banished from the Christian worldview. Like [Herman] Dooyeweerd, Van Til sought a purely biblical starting point for one’s epistemology. (p. 107)

For Van Til, then, Kuyper and Bavinck had fallen into the same error as scholasticism, even if not to the same degree.

Van Til shared Orr’s conviction that one’s worldview has to “begin from an overarching principle that explained everything.” In Van Til’s case, this principle is “the self-attesting Christ of Scripture” (p. 108). We must adopt a from above epistemology rather than a from below one. Karl Barth had preached such an approach, but (in Van Til’s judgment) never truly practiced it. In any event, Van Til was part of a broader 19th/20th-century movement that embraced “the idealist method of deducing a system of doctrine from a single concept,” that concept being Christology (p. 108).

In sum, Van Til didn’t advocate a “loose” understanding of worldview, as other Christian thinkers have done, but “instead adopted key elements of HWT” (p. 109).

Common Notions versus Common Ground?

Fesko concedes that Van Til affirmed shared knowledge between believers and unbelievers. However, Van Til wasn’t consistent on this point and equivocated about the unbeliever’s knowledge. Under the influence of HWT, Van Til rejected common notions and thereby “departs from the catholic and Reformed faith” (p. 110).

Ironically, however, “what Van Til takes away with the left hand he reintroduces with the right” (p. 110). He rejected the idea of common notions as a compromise with unbelieving thought, but then appealed to the idea of common ground to explain how Christians and non-Christians can agree on certain points. In Fesko’s judgment, this is more a matter of semantics rather substance. Fesko identifies five reasons for Van Til’s denial of common notions, the last of which is his unhealthy adoption of HWT.

A repeated theme in Van Til’s thought is the antithetical principles at work in Christian and non-Christian worldviews. His emphasis on principles, starting points, reflects his agreement with an idealist-influenced methodology. (p. 112)

For Van Til, the Christian worldview stands in utter antithesis to all other worldviews. (p. 113)

Van Til’s Influence and Impact

In this section Dr. Fesko documents what he takes to be some of the regrettable fruit of Van Til’s HWT-infected philosophy in the Reformed community, such as the rejection of natural law by theonomists such as Greg Bahnsen, and the development of “nouthetic counseling” by Jay Adams and others in the Christian counseling movement. Van Tilians such as Vern Poythress have sought to ‘redeem’ science and mathematics, as though there were a distinctively Christian approach to such disciplines. Indeed, the misguided idea of a “decidedly Christian view of scholarship in the academy” is partly attributable to Van Til’s influence.

Van Til’s ideas have not been helpful, Fesko contends, and mark a departure from the historic Reformed tradition. Van Til “blurred the distinction between general and special revelation and the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit” (p. 115). He rejected the “regular use of common notions” and criticized those who appealed to them as guilty of synthesizing Christianity with paganism. Students of Van Til, such as John Frame and Scott Oliphint, have erroneously maintained that the Bible alone is the “ground and foundation for our epistemology” (p. 115). Oliphint comes in for special criticism from Fesko, not only for claiming that Scripture is “the only source for all knowledge” (p. 116; cf. p. 119) but also for contending that such is the Reformed position. On the contrary, Fesko argues, “the Scriptures do not address everything” and the Reformed divines maintained that the “book of nature” was the source of knowledge for “temporal matters” such as science. Oliphint’s epistemology, like that of his master, has been infected by German idealism and represents a deviation from Reformed orthodoxy.

Scripture and Common Notions

Contrary to Van Tilian HWT, Scripture does not teach that there is a “complete epistemological antithesis” between believers and unbelievers (p. 120). Rather, due to common grace, there are areas of substantial agreement and shared knowledge.

Fesko offers three examples: (1) similarities between the Mosaic Law and the Code of Hammurabi, which predates the Mosaic Covenant; (2) Paul’s use of quotations from two pagan writers, Epimenides and Aratus, in his sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17); and (3) Paul’s affirmation of moral knowledge among the Gentiles in Romans 2:14-15. In the third case, Fesko expresses some sympathy for the argument that Paul is echoing terms and concepts found in Aristotle. At a minimum, he contends, Paul was using “extrabiblical data” (p. 126).

Exhaustive Epistemology or the Wisdom of Scripture?

Having argued that HWT’s rejection of common notions is unbiblical, Fesko now takes aim at its claim that “a worldview gives an exhaustive explanation of reality” and the Van Tilian idea that the Bible is “exhaustively comprehensive and is the source of all knowledge” (p. 127). Also subject to criticism is the claim that “there is a distinct Christian view of everything” such that “the church must always stand in antithesis to the world” (p. 128).

Fesko’s basic argument here is that such claims are obviously unbiblical, false, and absurd. Some excerpts:

If the church always stands in antithesis to the world, then why would Moses echo or incorporate the Code of Hammurabi into the Covenant Code? (p. 128)

The Bible is not a comprehensive survey of world history: the vast majority of the world’s history lies outside the pages of Holy Writ. The Bible explicitly states that many things are beyond humanity’s knowledge, not just about God, but also about creation. (p. 128)

If we say that the Bible provides an exhaustive view of the world, then we must affirm that there is a unique Christian view of everything. There can be no shared knowledge with the unbelieving world because the Scriptures alone hold all truth. (p. 129)

The Bible does not provide principles of art, medicine, history, or mathematics. (p. 129)

How does one evaluate certain artistic expressions when Scripture does not give any specific instruction on the subject, claims of the exhaustive nature of the Christian worldview notwithstanding? (p. 130)

On what exegetical basis can one determine whether Beethoven’s Ninth is true or false art? (p. 130)

The Bible tells us to preserve life, but it does not instruct us whether to conduct brain surgery or administer medication to heal a patient. (p. 131)

And so on. The argument scheme is simple: if Van Tilian HWT were true, then X would be the case; obviously X isn’t the case; therefore Van Tilian HWT must be mistaken.

So what has gone wrong here? Fesko suggests that “one of the key problems with HWT is that it seeks to deduce an exhaustive understanding of reality from one principle” (p. 131). But that owes more to 19th-century German idealism than to Reformed orthodoxy, which maintains that Scripture is only one principium (foundation) of knowledge among others. In sum:

To claim that we must deduce all knowledge from one principium confuses general and special revelation. (p. 132)

Conclusion

The evidence has been presented and the verdict is now delivered:

The problem with HWT is that it was forged on the anvil of human autonomous thinking; it was born under the dark star of Enlightenment rationalism, a mind-set committed to eradicating the concept of common human knowledge. We must reject HWT, not because of its origins, questionable as those are, but because of its claims to offer an exhaustive explanation of reality. (p. 132)

In short, HWT entails the rejection of common notions, whereas the biblical doctrines of humankind, creation, and revelation require us to affirm them. We can recognize that unbelievers can know and discover many important things about the world; we can work alongside them in their intellectual endeavors and learn much from them. Despite its pious professions, Van Tilian HWT threatens all that:

Saying with Van Til that only Christians truly know and that the Bible is our only foundation for all knowledge places us on an unnecessary collision course with the world on every point and presses the Bible into service of tasks for which it was never intended. (p. 133)

Instead of advocating an exhaustive Christian view of life and the world, we must recognize that God has created the world as a wonderfully diverse place and given human beings many gifts of knowledge and insight. There may be many different ways to do things and no specifically Christian ways. Such diversity is not a capitulation to autonomy but instead echoes the depths of God’s wisdom. (p. 133)

Comments

Chapter 5 is the longest of the book. It covers a lot of ground and raises a host of issues, but I’m going to try to major on the majors here and get to the heart of where I believe Dr. Fesko’s argument goes awry.

1. Recall that the overall purpose of Reforming Apologetics is to retrieve the “classical Reformed approach” over against (primarily) the Van Tilian presuppositional approach. This chapter contributes to that goal by leveling a serious criticism at Van Til’s apologetic. There are two prongs to the argument:

Prong 1: Van Til adopted HWT in his epistemology and apologetic methodology.

Prong 2: HWT is unbiblical.

The conclusion to be drawn, of course, is that Van Til’s approach has been constructed with unbiblical materials. This would be a devastating critique of Van Til were it not for a minor flaw in the argument, namely, that Prong 1 is flat-out false.

Recall how Fesko characterizes HWT at the opening of the chapter:

(1) the rejection of a common doctrine of humanity, (2) a single principle from which one deduces a worldview, (3) an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality, and (4) the incommensurability of competing worldviews. (p. 98)

I readily grant that HWT thus defined is misguided and unbiblical, and the same would go for the Christianized version of it that Fesko opposes. The problem is that Van Til doesn’t hold to a single one of these four tenets, at least not in the way Fesko articulates them. None of the quotations or citations from Van Til in the chapter support the claim that he did.

In a sense, that’s all that needs to be said in response. The only way to defend Prong 1 would be to weaken it to the claim that Van Til adopted some elements of HWT (e.g., that worldviews seek to answer some of life’s biggest questions; cf. p. 103). But that weaker claim isn’t enough to convict Van Til, because Fesko’s case depends on Van Til endorsing at least some of the four tenets above.

Now, to be fair, Dr. Fesko does try to draw connections between Van Til’s writings and these tenets of HWT. But in each case the argument misses the target, typically by misunderstanding Van Til’s position. So let’s consider each one in turn.

2. Does Van Til reject a common doctrine of humanity? Recall that for Fesko, a common doctrine of humanity means affirming (1) that believers and unbelievers share the imago Dei and (2) that believers and unbelievers “share common notions about God, the world, and even God’s law” (p. 100). Fesko’s claim that Van Til rejected this common doctrine of humanity rests on his earlier argument that Van Til rejects common notions. But as I explained in previous installments (here and here) that argument misrepresents Van Til’s position. He doesn’t reject common notions altogether, but rather a particular conception of common notions that (so he argues) is at odds with a consistently Reformed epistemology and anthropology. It’s trivially easy to quote passages from Van Til where he affirms common notions, understood as shared ideas and knowledge, based on the doctrines of the imago Dei and common grace.

Even in this very chapter, Dr. Fesko concedes that “Van Til appeals to the same categories that Reformed Orthodox theologians invoked when they promoted the concept of common notions” (p. 11). His point is that Van Til wasn’t consistent on this issue, that he spoke out of both sides of his mouth. But even if that were so, it would still follow that Van Til doesn’t in fact reject tenet 1 of HWT.

3. Does Van Til hold that the entire Christian worldview can be “deduced” from a “single principle”? I know of nowhere in Van Til’s writings where he makes such a claim. In fact, the opposite is true: Van Til strongly resisted the idea that Christianity is a strictly deductive system. For example:

Man’s system of truth, even when formulated in direct and self-conscious subordination to the revelation of the system of truth contained in Scripture, is therefore not a deductive system. (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 38)

The biblical “system of truth” is not a “deductive system.” The various teachings of Scripture are not related to one another in the way that syllogisms of a series are related. The “system of truth” of Scripture presupposes the existence of the internally, eternally, self-coherent, triune God who reveals Himself to man with unqualified authority. (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. v)

Another charge is to the effect that I think of the Bible as presenting us with a deductive system of truth. … It follows that the creeds of the church do not constitute deductive systems derived from the master concept of God. They are rather statements containing, so far as possible, all the various facets of truth about God and his relation to the world. There is coherence in these creeds but it is not the coherence of deduction. The famous doctrine of the two natures of Christ as set forth in the Chalcedon creed exhibits the fact that the church was unwilling to submit the apparently contradictory materials of Scripture to the requirements of a deductive system. (The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., p. 206)

Other similar statements could be provided. John Frame comments:

Van Til disparages this sort of argument [i.e., that one can deduce other Christian doctrines from one ‘master’ doctrine] as “deductivism.” The system of Christian through is not a “deductive” system, he says. To my knowledge, Van Til never defines “deductive” in this sense, but evidently he means to say here (1) that we should not try to develop a theological system by deducing everything from one “master-concept” such as the sovereignty of God and (2) that theology ought not to make deductions from one or more doctrines, the conclusions of which contradict other scriptural teachings. (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 166)

(For further discussion see the entire chapter “The Analogical System” in CVT:AAT, as well as section II of Frame’s classic essay Van Til: The Theologian.)

Ironically, the position Fesko targets here is closer to that of Gordon Clark than Van Til. Clark famously advocated a view known as Scripturalism, according to which the entire Christian system can be derived from a single axiom: “The Bible is the Word of God.”

So where does the idea that Van Til thought an entire worldview could be deduced from a single principle come from? As far as I can tell, Fesko gets it from one statement of Van Til in his essay “My Credo”:

The self-attesting Christ of Scripture has always been my starting point for everything I have said.

But this doesn’t mean at all that Van Til seeks to deduce everything from some kind of overarching Christological doctrine or principle. Rather, he is saying that his ultimate epistemological authority is the Lord Jesus Christ, speaking through Scripture, and that this authoritative divine revelation governs his interpretation of everything else (including how he thinks about the task and method of apologetics). You only have to read “My Credo” all the way through to get the point. It’s a claim about epistemological authority, not the basis for a deductive theological or philosophical system.

4. Does Van Til claim that the Christian worldview provides us with “an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality”? Fesko says repeatedly in this chapter that according to HWT a worldview offers an “exhaustive explanation” or a “comprehensive explanation” of the world (pp. 97, 98, 99, 103, 105, 108, 127, 128, 129, 131, 132 — and that may not be an exhaustive or comprehensive list!). Fesko clearly thinks that in the hands of Van Til and his followers this idea entails that the Christian worldview (or the Bible) explains every fact, answers every question, and contains every truth. This is especially apparent from the arguments Fesko makes in the section “Exhaustive Epistemology or the Wisdom of Scripture?” (pp. 127-132). For example:

The second chief problem with HWT is the claim that a worldview gives an exhaustive explanation of reality. It is one thing to claim that the Bible explains God, humans, and the world and as such has implications for every facet of life. It is another to claim that it is exhaustively comprehensive and the source of all knowledge. (p. 127)

The problem, once again, is that Van Til nowhere makes any such claim. None of the quotations or citations provided by Fesko supports the charge. Furthermore, Van Til frequently makes statements that contradict the charge, e.g., that unbelievers can discover many truths about the world through scientific and historical investigation.

I can only guess that Dr. Fesko has misunderstood some statements by Van Til which he refers to a few times (and partly quotes on p. 106):

The Christian life and world view, it was argued, presents itself as an absolutely comprehensive interpretation of human experience. The Christian life and world view, it was further argued, presents itself as the only true interpretation of human experience. (p. 38)

But Van Til isn’t claiming here that the Christian worldview (or the Bible) exhaustively explains everything in the sense that it answers all our questions and tells us everything we need to know about the world. He doesn’t mean to imply, as Fesko thinks, that “the Scriptures alone hold all truth” (p. 129). Rather, he is saying that if we are to rightly interpret our experiences of the world, we need to do so through the lens of a biblical Christian worldview, because only that worldview represents reality as it truly is. There is no such thing as uninterpreted experience, Van Til insists. There are no ‘brute’ facts. Our experiences will always be interpreted through a grid of presuppositions — about God, ourselves, the universe, possibility, plausibility, morality, rationality, etc. — and the correct grid is the one that aligns with a Christian worldview. To suggest that the world can be rightly interpreted with non-Christian presuppositions is, for Van Til, an implicit denial of the sovereignty of God and the authority of his revelation.

Thus, while the Bible doesn’t say everything there is to say about any particular thing, it does have something to say about everything, and what it has to say is absolutely authoritative because it is the word of Christ. Hence:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. (Christian Apologetics, p. 2)

In sum, the position Dr. Fesko attributes to Van Til is simply not one that he holds. Again, it’s worth noting that the claim that all knowledge comes from the Bible alone is one associated with Gordon Clark and his disciples. It’s a misguided claim, to be sure. But it’s not a Van Tilian claim.

5. Does Van Til hold that the Christian’s worldview and the non-Christian’s worldview are incommensurable? It’s not entirely clear to me what Dr. Fesko means by the “incommensurability of worldviews,” but the idea seems to be that two worldviews are incommensurable if there’s no agreement whatsoever between them, if they contradict at every point.

Van Til does indeed that there is in principle an absolute antithesis between the worldviews of the believer and the unbeliever, in the sense that their epistemological presuppositions are at odds. Put simply, they have different ultimate authorities: the Christian has “the self-attesting Christ of Scripture” as his ultimate authority, while the non-Christian has some other authority.

But Van Til is thinking here of how things stand in the ‘ideal’ or ‘pure’ case. In practice, there will typically be areas of formal agreement between the belief-system of the Christian and the non-Christian. For example, a Christian and a Muslim may agree that there is a creator of the universe who has authority over us. But at the same time, the devil is in the details: how one understands the nature and self-revelation of that creator will have a significant impact on the rest of one’s worldview and how one interprets one’s experiences of the world.

In any event, as I noted earlier, for Van Til the foundation question is that of epistemological authority. On that point, there is indeed a sharp antithesis.

Contra Fesko, however, it doesn’t follow from Van Til’s position that believers and unbelievers can’t communicate with each other, can’t engage in rational dialogue, can’t work together on common projects (e.g., scientific research), and so forth. Van Til explicitly denies such conclusions, as I’ve documented in previous posts (and as other Van Tilians have pointed out many times). The fact is that Van Til’s epistemology and anthropology are more complex and nuanced than Fesko acknowledges, and thus his critique falls flat. How can it be a refutation of Van Til to point out that the Bible clearly affirms X when Van Til himself clearly affirms X?

The disconnect is especially striking when we read statements such as these:

We can stand in awe of the learning and acumen of unbelievers and work alongside them in many endeavors. Because of our mutually shared image of God, even in a fallen world, we can learn much from non-Christians. (p. 133)

Remarkably, Dr. Fesko presents this as though Van Tilians would disagree. On the contrary, this is precisely the sort of concession Van Til would happily make. For example:

Many non-Christians have been great scientists. Often non-Christians have a better knowledge of the things of this world than Christians have. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 83)

But he would add that unbelievers accomplish such things despite their non-Christian worldviews, not on account of them. It’s a matter of common grace. I made this point earlier, but it bears repeating: Van Til’s apologetic depends on the assumption that unbelievers have knowledge about God, about themselves, and about the world. His argument is that they cannot account for that knowledge in terms of their own unbelieving worldviews, but only in terms of a Christian theistic worldview. Thus:

Now the question is not whether the non-Christian can weigh, measure, or do a thousand other things. No one denies that he can. But the question is whether on his principle the non-Christian can account for his own or any knowledge. (The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 283)

Similarly:

The first objection [to Van Til’s presuppositional method] that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical question “Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?” The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently. (Ibid., 125)

Van Til then goes on to argue that while unbelievers can do science — and often do so very successfully — that’s only because they’re not consistent with their own presuppositions. The foundational assumptions of the scientific method, such as the uniformity of nature, depend upon biblical theism and its presupposition that God is sovereign in creation and providence.

6. To sum up thus far: Dr. Fesko’s critique of Van Til’s apologetic hangs on the claim that it embraces HWT. But this claim is mistaken. Van Til doesn’t in fact hold to the four specific tenets that Fesko takes to be characteristic of HWT.

None of this is to deny that Van Til makes extensive use of the concept of worldview in his writings. Although he never uses the specific term worldview, and (as far as I can tell) only uses the term Weltanschauung when critiquing the work of Kant and others, he does speak of “the Reformed world and life view,” “the Christian philosophy of life,” and so forth. He argues that there is a distinctive Christian (indeed Reformed) worldview in the sense that there is a distinctively Christian view of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, traditionally taken to be the three major branches of philosophy (see, e.g., the chapter divisions in The Defense of the Faith).

Nor is it to deny that there are lines of influence from HWT through Orr and Kuyper to Van Til. Van Til openly acknowledged his intellectual debt to Kuyper. But none of this entails that Van Til bought into the entire HWT package as Fesko depicts it.

7. Finally, some observations about other characters in the drama. Dr. Fesko attributes also to Abraham Kuyper the claim that a worldview offers a “comprehensive explanation” of reality. Again, I think this is misleading. Kuyper certainly held that the Christian worldview speaks to every area of life; it has something significant to say about every field of human knowledge, not merely theology. But Kuyper nowhere claims, as far as I can see, that the Christian (or Calvinist) worldview explains everything. Fesko cites Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, but I can’t find any claim about “exhaustive explanation” (or anything equivalent) in those lectures. If I’ve missed it, I would welcome correction.

Scott Oliphint’s views are also misrepresented in this chapter. Fesko suggests that Oliphint “tries to support the idea of Scripture as the only source for all knowledge” (p. 116; cf. p. 119). I’ve read many of Dr. Oliphint’s books and articles, including the ones Fesko cites here, and nowhere does he defend such a view. Just to be sure, I emailed Dr. Oliphint, and he confirmed that he has never taken the (absurd and unbiblical) view that the Bible is our sole source of knowledge. Rather, Oliphint has insisted that divine revelation (which is broader than Scripture) is the only foundation for all human knowledge, and that is none other than the traditional Reformed position. It seems that somehow Fesko has mistaken Oliphint’s defense of a consistently Reformed revelational epistemology for a defense of Clarkian Scripturalism. (I daresay anyone familiar with Dr. Oliphint’s work will find it hard not to chuckle a little here.)

Readers of this chapter might also come away with a skewed view of John Frame’s position. While criticizing Oliphint’s claims, Fesko writes:

Other Van Tillians, such as John Frame, have made similar claims under Van Til’s influence. (p. 115)

The footnote refers us to Frame’s WTJ article “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism” and his subsequent interaction with Richard Muller and David Wells. It looks like Fesko has confused Frame’s Something-Close-to-Biblicism with Something-Close-to-Scripturalism. Frame argues (rightly and importantly, in my view) for a consistent application of Sola Scriptura in the fields of historical and systematic theology. Nowhere does he suggest that Scripture is the only source and foundation for human knowledge. No one could read Frame’s works (especially his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God) and fairly come away with that conclusion.

I have to conclude that while Dr. Fesko’s critique of HWT (as he defines it) may be sound, it’s mostly beside the point. Much of chapter 5 turns out to be an exercise in torching straw Van Tilians. Van Til may have been a Dutchman, but that’s no justification for tilting at windmills!

4 Responses to Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)

  1. If you have represented Dr. Fesko accurately, which I trust you have, then this is a matter of grave concern. RTS and the OPC have a serious matter before them. No doubt, though you’re setting the record straight (I’m sure you can do no other), I know this can’t be pleasurable. Thank you for your service, James.

  2. Some of what Fesko says here is similar to R.S. Clark’s criticisms of Van Til
    and John Frame in his book, *Recovering the Reformed Confessions*. In my review of that book, I too noted that it sounds like R.S. Clark thinks Frame etc. are a bunch of Clarkians (Gordon, that is). I recall a funny part in the book being when, after R.S. Clark “corrected” the “worldview folk” on their thinking that the Bible speaks of everything (like the internalism/externalism debate in epistemology), or that it speaks of American football games, R.S. Clark’s writes this doozy: “Special revelation speaks *to* football games, but not *of* them” (p.24). I was like, “Right. And *that’s* actually the position held by those you’re critiquing. As the Van Til football quote you offer suggests, “speaking of indirectly” is just Clark’s “speaking to.”

  3. Paul,

    Such confusion is widespread. It’s been going on for years. Similar sorts of caricatures here by DGH. https://oldlife.org/2011/10/10/epistemological-self-consciousness-intellectual-theonomy/

    Distinctions between internalism and externalism, forget about it. Note how the Bahnsen quote is misapplied.

    You teased out some ironies in the comments box.

  4. “Countless times I have encountered the argument that someone’s knowledge is not really knowledge because they have no epistemological foundation for it.” DGH

    I’m sure he wasn’t taking aim at Aquinas or Gordon Clark. Nope. It was another misguided arrow, this time aimed at Bahnsen (and by extension, Van Til and other “world view types.”)

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